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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel



Butter Chicken in Ludhiana

by
Pankaj Mishra


general information | our review | links | about the author



Title: Butter Chicken in Ludhiana
Author: Pankaj Mishra
Genre: Travel
Written: 1995
Length: 276 pages
Availability: Butter Chicken in Ludhiana - US
Butter Chicken in Ludhiana - UK
Butter Chicken in Ludhiana - Canada
  • Travels in Small Town India
  • Published by Penguin India Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is not generally available in the US or UK

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining look at modern India, though somewhat lacking in focus

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Pankaj Mishra's book takes him all across India, focussing in on small towns from the North to the South, East to the West. Mishra's haphazard journeying can be a bit dizzying: he has no real itinerary or route planned and there is little real flow to the trip. But the episodes in between are enjoyable.
       Mishra's focus on small towns (and not the usual tourist destinations) is welcome, as is his Indian perspective which sets him a step or two ahead of most Western travel writers. There are familiar sights throughout -- almost all the places he goes to are much visited -- but they are not the biggest or best known (i.e. don't expect a visit to the Taj Mahal). Western readers would do well to have a map handy (none is provided in the book) if they want to get a sense of Mishra's routes; Indians will know almost all the sites, many chosen because they have recently been the focus of attention (modernizing Bangalore, ever-backwards Bihar, etc.).
       With a book contract in his pocket and notebook always in hand Mishra travels to various spots, seeking insight into the huge and diverse land that is India. He is not out to see the sights as much as to observe the transformation of society under the myriad new influences affecting the country. There is much about the effect of television (and what Indians watch), and a fine description of the unease with which fast-food restaurants have been imported. There is a fair amount about the trouble with hotels and transportation, though this is an uneasy mix, emphasized perhaps only out of an obligation to write a "travel book." Fortunately Mishra is particularly interested in the people he encounters, and he has a great deal of contact with the locals, though almost always as a mere passerby.
       Mishra describes the people and his interaction with them well, an interesting cross-section of Indian society. From the family that sees him as prospective son-in-law (much to his surprise and chagrin) to students working towards taking (and failing) the Civil Service exam to passing encounters with Western tourists Mishra covers a lot of ground. (There are also figures and scenes suggestive of those appearing in his novel The Romantics (see our review).)
       Transformation is everywhere in this rapidly changing society, and at times Mishra, then in his mid-twenties, sounds like a nostalgic old man talking about the good old days. Nevertheless, his perspective and his experiences make this a more interesting India-book than most. Not quite as sharp a wit as Paul Theroux, nor as ponderous as V.S.Naipaul, this is still both a funny and thoughtful read.
       A literary type (among the authors he mentions reading along the way is Iris Murdoch, among the papers and magazines he reads along the way the London Review of Books), one of Mishra's highlights is "discussing Thomas Mann on a rainy morning in Kerala over genuine South Indian coffee." He gravitates to the literary -- meeting, among others, U.R. Anantha Murthy (the author of the Kannada classic, Samskara) -- an interesting aspect of the book, though often at odds with the surroundings (where, if he is lucky, his conversation partners wonder whether Iris is related to Rupert Murdoch). Mishra also meets Mary Roy, principal of the Corpus Christi School in Kottayam and "famous litigant". Given the time one can hardly call him a name-dropper when he reveals that he comes with an introduction from a casual acquaintance, Mrs. Roy's daughter, Arundhati -- though she was apparently already a somewhat notorious figure by that time, "openly living in sin with a Hindu man in Delhi."
       Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is somewhat lacking in focus and direction -- Mishra's travels are surprisingly aimless. Some choices are odd, such as when he visits Calcutta and states that it is "a city I happen to like, but the subject is an exhausted one, and best left to foreign travel writers and film makers to exercise their sensibilities on." About Benares much of the material is the testimony of others (particularly re. sexual harassment of women), not ideally woven in. But overall the book gives a good impression of a fast-changing society, offering many vantage points and vistas.
       A good overview of modern India, quite well written and amusing. Recommended.

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Links:

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Reviews: Pankaj Mishra: Other books by Pankaj Mishra under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Pankaj Mishra was born in 1969. He attended Allahabad University and received his M.Phil from Jawaharal Nehru University. He served as chief editor of HarperCollins (India) and "discovered" Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. He writes for The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, among other publications, and has written a best-selling travel book and a novel. Such a precocious fellow.

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